(PIX11) — Some 85 New York families are now waiting to see if a loved one’s conviction will be overturned.
It stems from cases going back some 30 years to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office and, in large part, to one detective.
One of those cases, that of Calvin Lee, now has serious doubts surrounding it even as he waits for his official review.
Lee was convicted in 1986 of second-degree murder and has spend 27 years behind bars for a crime he said he did not commit.
After exhausting every appeal from behind bars, the Brooklyn DA’s office confirmed they are investigating Lee’s case for a wrongful conviction because it is associated with a police officer exposed for being a dirty detective.
PIX11 this month met with Lee at the Otisville Correction Facility where he is currently being held.
“When (you’re) going to throw the book at somebody, you should at least have the right person,” he said.
Lee was convicted in the 1984 shooting death of Gary Van Dorn in Bed Stuy, which he denies committing. It was a rough time in New York, with nearly 1,800 murders that year alone. Police were overwhelmed.
Now, the record of former NYPD Detective Louis Scarcella, who has an impressive 350 convictions, is being closely scrutinized.
Lee remembers Scarcella from his own murder charge.
“I started looking over my transcripts and I saw his name there. He was my arresting officer. He was trying to clean up as many murders as he could and put as many people away as he can and they didn’t care about using any means that was necessary,” Lee said.
In 1984, the 23-year-old Lee was a petty criminal and heroin addict with more than a dozen arrests. A product of the streets, yes. But a killer?
PIX11 asked Lee directly: “Did you kill Gary Van Dorn?”
“No,” he said without hesitation.
When asked if he ever took someone’s life, Lee’s answer was the same: “No.”
Lee has virtually memorized his case file and points to a false statement as a big part of the reason he’s behind bars today.
Scarcella presented a statement that he claimed to take when he arrested Lee, one in which Lee admits to being at the scene of the crime and passing a gun to his friend Kevin Smith, a co-defendant in the murder.
Lee said he never made a statement to the detective let alone sign one confirming its authenticity. He said the statement was completely fabricated.
It’s a fraudulent Scarcella tactic that’s been cited by others wrongly convicted and now freed, though not confirmed by the Brooklyn DA’s office which is reviewing the cases.
Lee’s family, who also has read his court transcripts, allege witness tampering, too.
One witness brought forward by Scarcella refused to testify at Lee’s trial insisting he never saw anything.
Another changed his testimony in open court after being held in jail for five days on a perjury charge relating to Lee’s case. His deal with the District Attorney’s office gave him freedom in exchange for testimony against Lee.
Frederick Shaw was initially part of the District Attorney’s case. He refused to testify in court saying he was not a witness.
But the scenario he described was one that other Scarcella “witnesses” have repeated.
Shaw said he was picked up by Scarcella to go to the precinct. Instead, they stopped under the elevated subway tracks where he said the detective punched him and smacked him around, bloodying his nose.
He then told Shaw he needed to admit to seeing the Van Dorn shooting go down, and point to Calvin Lee as a murderer. But Shaw refused to go on the stand, leaving the only witness to testify in the case.
Steven Green, a cousin of Lee’s, sat through the trial in 1986 and vividly remembers the testimony of Trent Richardson.
“If you’re looking at reasonable doubt, here it is. You heard him say one statement one day, something else the next. Flip Flop. There’s something wrong here,” Richardson said.
Jeffrey Deskovic, of the Deskovic Foundation for Justice, who was exonerated after serving 16 years in prison for a murder he did not commit, weighs in.
“Everytime the wrong person is sent to prison, it leaves the real perp to strike again,” he said.
Deskovic uses his notoriety to campaign tirelessly for others wrongfully convicted. He insists one dirty detective is not the only problem that needs to be investigated.
“The DA under Heinz would like the public to believe that, but Scarcella had a partner,” Deskovic said. “He had co-workers. The Brooklyn DA was playing ball.”
Even as attorneys pore over the 400 pages of Lee’s trial and re-investigate witnesses to win his freedom, Lee’s family has never lost faith.
Wife and children, grandchildren and cousins all mourn the time lost during his nearly three decades behind bars.
His wife Pamela Lee, who he’d known since he was a teenager and married while in prison, has lead the charge to free her husband.
“You need evidence. You need a witness and they did it all wrong. Since the day I walked into that correction center, I’ve been fighting, fighting,” she said.
Lee’s son Divine was 8 years old when his father left for prison. Today, he is a father and realizes the incarceration has taken a heavy toll.
“I wish my father was here to raise me, to be a better person,” he said. “It was embarrassing to be in prison with your son. I just had to get my life together.”
And as his father dares to think of a future outside prison walls, he also thinks of the now-retired Scarcella’s future.
“I’m not going to be a judge,” he said. “I don’t have a heaven or hell to put him in, but he’s going to have to deal with that. I can’t cast any stones at that, but God is going to deal with him.”